Portrait of an artist: An afternoon with Sir Roland

POSTED: 08/30/13 1:18 PM

Roland at work

Artist Roland Richardson at work in his gallery completing a portrait of a young relative visiting. He has been doing more portrait work recently. Photo Today / Milton Pieters

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – The image of the boy unfolded as the conversation unfolded. What began as a blank canvas and a few strokes of color slowly took the familiar form of a person. Upstairs in a building that belonged to his ancestors, Roland Richardson painted the portrait of a young cousin visiting from overseas. The gallery is a time portal, a preserved example of old French Caribbean architecture, lovingly kept, that takes you back to a genteel St. Martin before mass tourism discovered it.

Amidst antique furniture and his collection of works and sketch books, the artist painted his subject with the soft light of the afternoon illuminating the room. His hands clutched multiple brushes as he selected his colors for the canvas, shifting with ease from conversation to painting and back again. He looked the part, with his bushy beard and paint stained shirt and jolly eyes. “Can’t you see this grin?” came the witty response when asked if painting makes him happy. “The world of color has no conflicts.”

He is perhaps our most iconic and famous artist. “I was the first native born artist on the island,” Richardson said yesterday. Because of that, “you have to be an example.” Painting, he expressed, is an “ancient form of magic. Art is always intended to do good.”

He demonstrated how a few lines of charcoal on a piece of paper, for example, can immediately make it substantial by transforming an empty space into something with volume and depth.  Richardson is a student of color. “I am trying to treat color as the actual subject. Nothing will work unless the color works.”

He has always painted portraits throughout his life, although “I would do it sporadically,” he reflected. He does them more often now and it’s an evolution in his work. “You need to have proper portraiture.” Until the advent of the camera, portraits were the way people recorded their images for posterity. “It’s a testimony.”

Midway through, he took a break from his painting and went inside one of the rooms. When he came back he presented two small portraits from 1835 of a mother and her daughter. “Portraiture is that bridge” between the past and present, he explained. Without the portraits those two people would have been forgotten. But a portrait reminds us that they were real. They capture a spirit, a moment in time.

Photographs don’t interest him. “I’m not interested in realism. I’m interested in the impression.” For Richardson, a painted portrait can capture the soul of a person better than any camera can. He lamented that today some people don’t even have physical photographs anymore. Everything is digital and it can wiped out or lost. A painting, on the other hand, can outlive us.

Portraits, he said, challenge him. The mysterious spark that animates a person, and that says everything about who they are, is more elusive to get a hold of. “You want to have challenges in order to grow. The minute you get satisfied because you’ve attained some level of whatever, then you’re just stalling. Challenge is a necessity for growth. When you encounter something that is challenging you after 50 years of painting, suddenly you feel yourself uncertain, etc. etc. That type of thing you thank God for,” Richardson happily mused. Such new ground is important for an artist’s creativity.

His portrait of the young boy emerged over the course of the discussion. Richardson is an impressionist painter, so he paints in one session. What began as a few lines of color, took shape and the canvas appeared to have depth and texture where it was once a flat surface, the light in the boy’s eyes forever sealed on canvas. His face became more distinct as the artist applied his chosen colors with their own brushes. “I don’t let the colors mingle. It is a force,” he said of each color.

“Portraits are something people are more interested in,” Richardson said, though, of art in general and the public’s reaction to it. And he is not picky about his subjects. “I will paint a portrait of anyone. I am going to be, through my portraiture, leaving a legacy of the people that I have encountered and done their portraits of.”

He recently completed a portrait of veteran Saban politician Will Johnson. Richardson also feels it’s important to capture the image of people who are in political positions that never existed before on the island because of the constitutional changes both sides of the island underwent. “It merits recordings,” he said.

And Richardson has painted portraits of himself too, often from interesting vantage points, like an image of himself from the reflection of a vase or even his reflection in his wife’s eyes.

He hosts open sessions every Thursday afternoon. “I have been doing these open sessions for 5 years. It’s free and available to whoever wants to take advantage of it.” People can simply drop by his gallery in Marigot and sit in while the artist works.


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